Sometimes you just get lucky. When a mutual friend introduced me to Matt Cutter, one of the founders of Upslope Brewing, I unabashedly asked if I could interview him. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. With the expansion of Upslope’s brewing facility, maintaining an active outdoor lifestyle, and conducting brewery tours, Matt certainly has a full plate. Even with all that, he still graciously agreed to a phone interview with a fledgling craft beer writer.
TC: I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today.
MC: Yeah, absolutely. Happy to do so.
TC: Our mutual friend told me that you were a homebrewer for a long time. What was it that got you interested in that in the beginning?
MC: Great question! I didn’t know what craft beer was until I moved to Boulder, CO in 1991 from Cleveland, where I grew up. We were definitely not drinking good beer there. It was here that I began to be introduced to craft beer. The very young, immature scene was only just developing in CO and it just blew my mind. I wanted to see if I could do it myself and create my own recipes and flavors. There was a very easy way to do it at the time at a place called the Beer Store. It was an “on premise” brewing store. They had all the equipment and ingredients you needed, and you would actually brew there at the store. They would help you brew as much as you needed. They were ahead of the game a little bit. They ended up closing down after a few years, but it was definitely eye opening experience. That love of tweaking recipes and discovering what different temperatures would do. Different hopping schedules. Different yeast strains. I then brought it home to my kitchen and brewed all the time with my next door neighbor. So we always had homebrew in the pipeline. It was really fun and I was really enjoying the whole process.
TC: When did you first think of opening your own brewery?
MC: I took a class on entrepreneurship at Front Range Community College which the entire course was how to build a business plan. There were students building business plans for various things. Flower shops, software companies, you know the full gamut. Mine was for a microbrewery. I finished that plan in 1996 and at that time I had befriended a couple guys from Left hand Brewing. We started looking around at space, had the business plan and basically determined we had no money to get this thing done. We then went our separate ways, but we still keep in touch. I then got into project management for circuit boards. That was really my first taste of manufacturing in a start up environment and I think it really stayed with me. I kept homebrewing the whole time and by the summer of 2007 the business plan was still in the back of my head.
TC: So over 10 years later you still couldn’t shake it. Haha.
MC: Exactly! Haha. I started to rewrite that plan for Upslope. It wasn’t so much of a “yeah, I’m doing this”, but more of a tip toe down the path. I wanted to see where the industry was at in a detailed fashion. What would the concepts look like, the marketing, the financials, and who would I need to help me establish something like this. Great, I know how to homebrew and can put together a business plan, but that doesn’t mean I know how brew on a production system or build a brewery.
It cuts through a lot of crap.
TC: So after all that time and a successful career, what was the final push to get your microbrewery off the ground?
MC: So one night my son, who was 10 at the time, asked me what I was doing as I was up late one night working on the business plan. I tried to downplay it, but I told him “I’m writing a business plan for a brewery”. Then he said “Well you have to do it, it’s your dream!”
TC: Out of the mouth babes.
MC: Exactly. That clarity he had. What do you say at that point? “No son, it’s not okay to follow your dreams.” Hahaha.
TC: It’s just so simple. Just do it, right dad?
MC: Right. It cuts through a lot of crap. Obviously it’s a lot more complicated, but at its core it made a lot of sense. So like all good project managers, I mitigated my risk as much as possible and surrounded myself with people who are good at what I’m not good at. I reach out on Probrewer and there was a posting from a guy from Argentina who was coming to Colorado and was interested in joining up with somebody for a start-up. Dany Pages traveled here in January 2008 and we sat down for 3 hours. His English was pretty rough, but better than my Spanish. We had a full conversation about what each person could bring to the table. We had similar ideas for what we wanted from the brewery and had very complimentary backgrounds. We started looking at space, then Dany had to travel back to Argentina because his tourist visa was running out. He told me “when you find space, let me know.” So early April I signed a one year lease for 2,200 sq ft at Lee Hill. I sent him an email saying “I signed the lease, I hope you’re serious.” He bought his plane ticket the next day and was here within two weeks. I kept my day job. I didn’t know when the brewery could afford to support me, but I felt it needed to be able to stand on its own two feet before it could offer me anything. Dany was full time working for a very meager income and I was everything else. Lee Hill is now our specialty brewery where we do all of our experimental beers. We just did one we call a SWaSH. A single wheat and single hop, all wheat beer. So it’s our land of experimentation. Whatever comes out of Lee Hill and happens to grow legs then we just go with it. We don’t like to force a beer into a can. We let it finds its way.
TC: So almost a 20 year journey so far.
MC: Wow…I guess you’re right.
TC: So what has expansion been like for Upslope?
MC: So our largest facility has been online for 3 years now. In fall of 2008 Henry Wood came on and was the perfect third leg of the stool that Dany and I made. We sold about 80 bbl our first year. The next year we did 1100. Fast forward to 2012 things were getting a bit crowded at Lee Hill. We brewed 5,600 bbl on a 7 bbl system which means we brewed over 800 times that year. In 2013 we doubled to almost 12,000 bbl. Now we’re looking at about 32,000 that we’ll do this year.
TC: That’s a huge ramp up! Besides the space and limitations of your equipment, what do you think the biggest struggles were for ramping up that much and that quickly were?
MC: Hahaha. It depends on who you ask. I’d have to say financing. We don’t have outside investors. We really like that model. We’re bank fed and the net profits are small. We scramble to find more and more money to feed this thing. I was able to secure a small line of credit from a small local bank in 2009 and before that in early 2009 we almost went out of business. We had about 3000 in the bank. I took out a second mortgage and that bridged us until we were able to secure that line of credit. Every 4-6 months I ask for another loan and we just walk hand in hand together as the business grows.
TC: That’s incredible. So the relationship with the bank was critical.
MC: Absolutely. To maintain who we are and our culture with the fact that we decide what we want to do. We make our own decisions on packaging, what beer we want to produce, what states we want to open and how much we want to grow. We’ve got an amazing culture here in part because of that.
That’s how drinking a beer should be.
TC: I’m glad you brought up culture. You talked about it yourself, that when you first came to Boulder you kind of wanted to be a ski bum. You even mentioned that you went on a bike ride this morning, and looking at your website and Facebook page it’s obvious that you’re really into the outdoor/adventure lifestyle. How important is it to you to infuse that lifestyle into Upslope.
MC: It’s less of an infusion and more of just an extension of who we are. We’re all very avid outdoorsmen. Biking, backpacking, climbing, etc. So we team up with people who are like minded. Employees and partners. Ski companies, outfitters, events that we do. Our branding definitely supports that. Donations that we do. Our craft lager. Our 1% to rivers campaign. 1% of the revenue goes to the local Trout Unlimited chapters that protects cold water fisheries and at the same time protects the number ingredient in our product, which is snow melt.
TC: So you definitely try to maintain that work/life balance.
MC: We definitely try! It gets a little out of balance sometimes.
TC: Another part of your culture that I’ve noticed is the word “Apres” (pronounced [ah pray]). Tell me about that.
MC: Apres everything. Our beer was originally, and still to this day, designed for the active outdoor enthusiast and intended to be put in the ever portable, recyclable, and crushable aluminum can. Intended to go with you into the great outdoors. The concept is that when you go for that mountain bike and you return to the trail head, have one of our beers. When you reach the top of a 14,000 foot peak, take it with you and drink it up there. Its intended to be that very approachable, refreshing, premium reward for what you just accomplished.
TC: You just did something incredible. Have a beer, because you deserve it.
MC: Nothing tastes better than that first beer after an excursion. You’re hanging out, talking about the guy that wiped out, the blood on your ankle, how beautiful the meadow was once you got to the top. That’s how drinking a beer should be.